What is Executive Presence?
Your “presence” is composed of 3 major factors:
- Nonverbals: your body language, physical movement and aesthetic appearance
- Verbals: Your words and delivery when speaking
- Social Interaction: how you interact with others
When that presence makes people see you as a leader, we can call it executive presence.
Let’s break down each of these areas to see how executives (and other leaders) move, speak and interact.
That will help us identify strategies to build executive presence.
Executive Body Language: How a Leader Moves
Controlled Movement and Walk
Powerful people tend to move in a confident, controlled, and calm way.
A powerful person does not feel threatened (either physically or emotionally) by the people around them. Feeling at ease means they can relax and move at their own pace.
They don’t rush their movements or their words.
They may walk fast or make quick hand gestures, but that’s not because they are rushing. It’s because that’s how they want to move in that moment, or it comes naturally to them.
Calmness and Little or No Fidgeting
Powerful people also tend to fidget very little, or not at all. This is related to feeling in control, and at ease with the situation.
We rarely see a leader or executive touch their face excessively, wring their hands, play with their hair, fidget with a pen or other object, or make random facial expressions.
The calm demeanor of an executive puts others at ease, and creates a sense of stability. Stability is highly prized in a leader.
When most people think of executive presence or confident communication, eye contact is one of the top skills they imagine.
Leaders maintain strong eye contact with people, without “staring them down.”
Reasonable, confident, steady eye contact demonstrates a comfort with being looked at, and a comfort with other people. It also indicates to people that the leader is listening and taking them seriously.
To practice this, make sure to hold eye contact with a neutral or slightly positive expression on your face. An angry or aggressive look will be interpreted as hostile by most people.
Aesthetics and Appearance
Your hair, clothing, makeup, facial hair, shoes and accessories can all be used to project a certain image. Pay attention to the signal they are sending if you want to increase your executive presence.
You want to appear professional according to the standards of your office or field.
Standards vary from context to context. For example, tech startups tend to be quite casual. Big law firms tend to have more conservative/ traditional dress codes.
Some creativity or deviation from that norm can be a good thing. But too much will become a distraction and reduce your executive presence, because it will make people take you less seriously.
Stability, predictability, competence, and professionalism are the main qualities you want to project through your appearance.
This video shows Steve Jobs “behind the scenes” working with colleagues, managing discussions, and handling disagreements.
Executive Speaking: How Leaders Talk
First things first: there is no one single way to “speak like a leader”
Leaders speak in many different ways. Some are fast talkers, some slow. Some speak in dense jargon, and others in plain, down-to-earth language.
Some leaders are serious, buttoned up, and stoic. Others whimsical, edgy or quirky.
All of these can be effective, or ineffective, depending on the person, and the context.
That being said, there are certain universal qualities that leaders tend to have when they speak.
Certainty and Conviction
Leaders speak with confidence. They believe in what they are saying. They don’t hedge or qualify their words (such as “I feel like…” or “Sort of…”), except sparingly.
They use clear and honest vocabulary.
Leaders also use few filler words when they speak (like “um” or “uhh” or “so…”).
When every third or fourth word you say is “umm” or “like”, it becomes distracting, and weakens your presence. Try to reduce filler words if they are excessive.
Steady Vocal Delivery
Whether a leader’s natural pace is fast or slow, they are steady. This is related to their overall calmness and groundedness.
Leaders and executives are confident that they can take their time to express themselves and their audience will wait to hear their full comment.
They don’t feel the need to rush in order to keep people’s attention, or to fit into others’ time constraints.
If you notice yourself feeling rushed when you speak, try to take a breath and regain control.
Clarity in the Message
Related to conviction, an effective leader has a clear message. Others feel that they know where the person stands.
This requires the leader to be willing to take a strong position, even if others disagree.
When you speak in meetings or presentations, have a clear and easy-to-grasp message, and you will enhance your executive presence.
In this video, Stanford Professor Deborah Gruenfeld discusses how leaders confidently engage with others and project power:
Executive Presence in Social Interactions
Taking the Initiative in Meetings and Conversations
Leaders create situations much more often than they react to them. This is one of the most powerful differences between executives and others lower on the business hierarchy.
Initiative is a core aspect of effective leadership: reaching out to customers, creating new proposals and projects, developing new business ideas, strengthening relationships with employees and stakeholders.
And this tendency carries over into meetings, one-on-one conversations, presentations and discussions.
Even when others are presenting, an executive will often be the first to ask a question.
Giving Praise and Recognition
A subtle but powerful leadership habit is to publicly recognize people’s contributions.
Effective leaders are comfortable taking credit for their own achievements. But they are also quick to spread credit to their team and business partners.
Even if you do not have a formal executive title yet, you can immediately start giving praise and acknowledgement of others’ achievements during meetings, presentations or casual conversations.
This is one of the simplest ways to create executive presence, and makes others feel great as well.
Handling Tension and Conflict
Leaders are completely comfortable with tension, conflict, and disagreement.
Indeed, the higher up the corporate ladder you rise, the more conflict and tension there will be, not less.
That’s because the stakes are higher, and your decisions have more impact on more people.
So leaders must be comfortable with tension and conflict in order to thrive.
NBC Journalist Kristen Welker, during the 2020 presidential debates, displayed a superior ability to manage conflict and tension:
Responding to Challenges
Effective leaders receive few challenges to begin with, because they take so much initiative (going back to the earlier point).
Because they are creating new ideas, new conversation topics, new challenges for themselves and those around them, others are put in a reactive position.
Others don’t have as much time to develop challenges, as they would if the leader was passive and idle.
Even when they do receive a challenge, an effective executive is able to compartmentalize that challenge inside their own frame.
Rather than directly combating the challenge, the executive takes it and subtly reframes it in a way that maintains their own position as the dominant narrative.
Strong Mindset When Dealing with People
Above all, this requires a very strong mindset.
A strong leader’s mindset is defined by total conviction in their vision. And by commitment to seeing it through.
Uncertainty in the vision, or lack of commitment to follow through on the project, and your presence and energy will not be as strong as it could be.
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